Chronology of marathon negotiations on a Ukraine accord
The marathon talks in Minsk that led to Thursday's Ukraine peace plan were punctuated with rumours, leaks, quips and arresting gazes by alternatively weary and incensed officials rotating in and out of negotiations.
Prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin's abrupt appearance before assembled reporters just after 10 am (0700 GMT) to announce the ceasefire beginning on Sunday, false starts, violated protocol, and grim asides had created the impression that the possibility of an agreement was growing more and more remote.
It all began inauspiciously around 8 pm (1700 GMT), with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko greeting diplomatic sponsors of the talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, as well as Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko -- who scarcely deigned to look up when a Russian journalist shouted, "Why is your army bombing civilians?"
Shortly after, the media scrum in Minsk's vast post-Soviet Independence Palace waited for the leaders to line up for the official group photo.
Instead, they saw summit protocol go by the boards, when Hollande, Merkel, and Poroshenko continued huddling on side of the room, while Lukachenko and Putin conversed on the other, the photo forgotten.
When Hollande, Merkel, Putin and Poroshenko finally converged before retiring to negotiate, the Russian and Ukrainian traded the briefest of handshakes, the latter's face grim.
By 10 pm, with scores of diplomats amassed in the corridors of the palace, word circulated that talks had become very tense. Through cracked doors, Putin and Poroshenko were often visible standing, the Ukrainian leader making gestures with his hands.
After exiting the increasingly strained discussions, a passing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov answered a request for an update by quipping to an AFP reporter, "Come with me to the toilet and I'll tell you everything."
At nearly the same moment, an angry-looking Poroshenko and several members of the Ukrainian delegation left negotiations to general surprise and concern that negotiations might have broken off.
Once the president placed a secure call to chiefs of Ukraine's armed forces, however, Poroshenko returned to resume discussions.
Three hours later, the four leaders took a break, using the occasion to assemble for the group photo neglected at the outset.
When negotiations resumed, Hollande and Merkel periodically took aside Putin or Poroshenko to consult or cajole on certain points.
Occasionally, periodic group lunges of reporters towards an opening door or exiting diplomat produced a morsel of information on the progress of talks.
"The feeling was rather optimistic at the beginning, but now that this is dragging on, Putin is bickering as usual," a diplomatic source confided.
"Work continues, but it still has a really long way to go," commented another.
At 4:48 am, a telephone text message from a member of the Ukraine delegation said, "Everyone is yawning, but they're still talking."
At 5:30 am, another wild group lunge of previously sleeping reporters surged towards moving bodies, cameras at the ready and microphones aloft to capture an anticipated announcement. Instead bodyguards warned no statement was forthcoming -- the sortie was just Putin taking a bathroom break.
Three-and-a-half-hours later, presidential press attaches began speaking of signing ceremonies -- without any having information about who was supposed to be signing what kind of agreement.
At 10 am, when Poroshenko exited to place another secure call to military leaders, the Ukrainian president confided to reporters "the news isn't good," blaming Putin for insisting on "unacceptable conditions."
Soon afterwards, however, Ukrainian and French sources told AFP the problem was the refusal of pro-Moscow Ukraine rebels to sign a provisional agreement.
The representative of the Organization for Co-operation and Safety in Europe, Heidi Tagliavini, then arrived to join talks, amid leaked details describing a super-charged atmosphere, infuriated faces and whispered asides among participants.
Talks that began in hope Wednesday evening appeared to have got bogged down in bitter contention as noon neared on Thursday.
Which was exactly when Putin beat his fellow leaders to the mark by exiting the negotiating room, walking before reporters, and announcing the peace accord.
© 2015 AFP